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SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE, THE

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Nickelodeon’s big-screen versions of its hit kiddie shows have been a pretty sorry lot, so one might be forgiven for not expecting much from “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.” But in the event the little picture proves a happy surprise–sprightly, colorful and fun. Not having seen the series, I can’t testify to the picture’s fidelity to it, but on its own this feature provides eighty minutes that children should enjoy and adults will find more charming than not.

When the movie opens SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is opening a second Krusty Krab restaurant and our hero (Tom Kenny) fully expects to be named manager; his pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), a goofy starfish, is ready to celebrate big-time. Unfortunately Krabs promotes Bob’s neighbor Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) instead. But that’s not the worst of it: the evil Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), owner of the dumpy, unsuccessful rival eatery the Chum Bucket, aims to steal Krabs’ famous sandwich recipe by stealing the crown of arrogant King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), convincing him that Krabs is the thief, and then persuading the short-tempered monarch to do away with his rival. Fortunately sweet princess Mindy (Scarlett Johansson) persuades her father to give SpongeBob and Patrick six days to go the notorious Shell City, get back the crown and save Krabs. The mission leads to a series of episodic adventures for the duo (which vary in their humor quotient, of course), who must not only contend with the rarely-welcoming creatures they meet along the way but a thug named Dennis (Alec Baldwin) hired by Plankton to rub them out. The boys make it to Shell City, which turns out to be something quite different from what they expected, and get help returning to Bikini Bottom from none other than “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff, who proves to be a champion swimmer indeed. But once returned they have to contend with the fact that Plankton’s evil schemes go far beyond the food-service industry into a megalomaniacal plot to rule their little world.

There are bits of this scenario that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to “Finding Nemo” (the whole Shell City business recalls the dental office doings in that Pixar picture), but the conventional animation here has a distinctive look of its own, and the writing has a good-natured tone that keeps things from dragging at this extended length. Familiarity with the characters will doubtlessly increase the enjoyment, but even the uninitiated should have a pleasant time.

“SpongeBob” does slip periodically. There are too many of the butt shots that seem obligatory in kiddie movies nowadays, and a few too many belches, too. The big sequence involving Hasselhoff goes on too long and isn’t nearly as funny as the makers obviously intended. And the repeated theme of “kid power”–at one point we even hear the cry of “Kids rule!”–has an unfortunate pandering tone. But for the most part “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” has an easygoing, gentle sweetness that doesn’t cloy, and should entertain family audiences in theatres nicely before taking up permanent residence on home video shelves.

TOUCHING THE VOID

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Part documentary and part re-enactment, Kevin Macdonald’s account of a near-fatal attempt by two young Englishmen to scale a forbidding Andean peak in 1985 makes for absorbing, moving viewing. Both accomplished filmmaking and powerful human statement, “Touching the Void” makes Hollywood attempts to capture the climbing experience–pictures like “Cliffhanger” and “Vertical Limit”–look like the cheap melodrama they are. It’s a compelling and strangely beautiful piece of work.

Based on the book by Joe Simpson, the film relates the effort by him and Simon Yates to scale the treacherous Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes. The duo manages to reach the summit, but during the descent Simpson shatters his leg. Though Yates tries to lower his disabled friend down the treacherous slope, Simpson is eventually trapped danging above a gorge, and Yates is left with no choice but to cut the rope that connects them to save himself. Believing his friend to be dead, Yates makes his way back to their base camp, exhausted and grieving. But unknown to him, Simpson has made his way out of the chasm and struggles his way painfully toward the camp as well. Much of the latter portion of “Touching the Void” recounts his tortured effort to cross the first icy, then rocky landscape, and his trek is so stunningly realized that a viewer can almost feel his agony.

The “you-are-there” effect, in fact, permeates the film, beautifully shot using actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron on locations in the Andes and the Alps. No other picture has so brilliantly caught both the exhilaration and the sheer physical brutality of the climbing experience. But it goes beyond that to present what is also a story of great courage and tenacity. By punctuating the narrative with observations by the real Simpson and Yates recalling their feelings and thoughts as the events actually unfolded, Macdonald raises the emotional tension of the piece. One can hardly fail to be moved by Simpson’s thoughts on religion and the afterlife–not at all the ones you might expect (and would certainly find in a fiction film)–when he thinks himself doomed, or by Yates’s still-raw explanation for his decision to cut the rope. (Simpson’s book was, in fact, intended in part to refute later criticism of his friend for having left him on the mountain.) There is a third person involved, though peripherally, in the events–Richard Hawking, a young man whom the climbers hired to man their base camp during their assault on the peak. His role is dramatized too, though only incidentally, and he also records his reminiscences.

There are points in “Touching the Void,” especially toward the close, when Macdonald miscalculates slightly. The recreation of Simpson’s hallucinatory final night on the way back to camp, complete with ghostly music and double exposures, goes overboard; it’s simply out of place against the more straightforward approach taken elsewhere, however much based on reality it might be.

Overall, however, this is a non-fiction film of rare impact. It easily takes its place among the succession of imaginative, powerful documentaries that have reached theatres over the past couple of years. Like mountain climbing itself, it’s both thrilling and rather terrifying.